ID tags are attached high on the neck with thick climbing cord.
When I adopted Pendle, I opted to leave her id number from the BLM tied to her neck rather than stress her in the loading chute with its removal. I planned to take it off once she was already tame and would be relaxed about more intensive handling. All my other mustangs had had their id tags taken off before they left the BLM facility, and more than once I felt badly that she still had her id number attached even though she was home. As she grew more tame and allowed me to touch her, I suspected that she would allow me to handle her enough to remove the tag. What I didn’t want to happen, was to begin the process, loosen the cord, and then have her pull away and end up wearing a too big “necklace” that could get caught on a fence post or that she could catch her hoof in when she went to scratch an ear with a back foot. If I was going to attempt to remove the tag I needed to be confident I could complete the entire process.
Even mustangs that can be touched all over and seem relaxed with people can suddenly panic when faced with any sort of physical pressure on a rope. Horses in general can be worried about being trapped, but a mustang who is still learning how to feel safe around people can be downright dangerous if they think they can’t get away or experience a novel sensation. So, I was cautious. I wanted to untie the knots in the cord rather than cut it – I wasn’t sure how she would respond to the noise of a scissors so close to her ear – and I didn’t want her to end up with a scissors attached to the cord around her neck. I also knew I had to be really careful untying the knots, so if she pulled away my fingers would not catch on the cord and I would not be dragged with her. With a wild horse, you must be aware of everything before you begin. Safety comes first.
So I practiced a bit scratching her all around where the cord was on her neck and moving the cord back and forth and putting pressure on the cord. She absorbed all of the different sensations with relaxation and curiosity. It was time to remove her number.
The nervous, over-threshold horse I met at the adoption location was never who Pendle really was. That horse, the one who crashed into the pen and almost went over the top, was just a combination of an untamed horse and a confinement situation too small for her current level of fear. Every day, horses are labelled “crazy” or “reactive” or “hot” based on behavior they offer in response to set ups that we humans control. In so many ways, we are responsible for the behaviors they end up practicing. In Pendle’s case, what she ended up practicing this time is relaxed engagement for handling. I chose to work on the other side of the fence so she could leave if she wanted. And so she could stay if she wanted, too.
Taking off her number felt like removing the last vestige of her captivity. She isn’t a wild horse anymore, of course, but she is part of our herd here, and our family. We are working on many more things now – she is tame enough to be turned out into a larger area to pick at winter grass- and she is quickly learning to lead with just a rope draped around her neck. She is sensitive and intelligent and social with humans. Everyone that meets her feels special, she offers that sort of attention. Her energy is warm and soft and she glows. That is who she is at her core, a sensitive, social, curious soul.
In my last blog about Pendle, which you can read here, I shared how combining habituation and daily remote food delivery can quickly create relaxation and foster curiosity during the taming process. Using these passive strategies allows the horse to approach when they are relaxed and ready for further learning, rather than forcing them to accept touch before they would have chosen on their own.
When we last left her, Pendle was actively approaching to investigate me AND very much looking forward to her daily tub of grain. It was time to see if she was ready to accept food from my hand.
Aside from the advantage of being able to actively teach skills once direct food delivery is available, the horse also furthers their own desensitization to humans by touching the hand for longer and longer to acquire all of the grain. A useful side process!
First lessons using food are simple. Touch a target. Follow me. All initial lessons are done through protected contact (with the horse behind a fence), so the horse has the choice to interact or not. The behaviors themselves, of standing quietly near a human and choosing to follow out of interest, continue to work on the horse’s overall relaxation around humans. In a way, they are done in service of that goal. Yes, they also teach rules around food, and what humans might reinforce, but their big picture value is still in fostering relaxation.
With Pendle, all of her caution, all of her wildness melted away at once. I was standing right next to the fence, and I felt an intuition that if I touched Pendle, she would not move away.
I was right. Unlike other “first touches” where the horse pins their ear, or stomps their foot or stands tense but still, Pendle relaxed into the touch like she had been tame all along. I felt the whole universe in than moment, yielding, melting like spring snow into the possibility of soft black earth. Consent. This won’t matter to everyone. For some, obedience is enough. It’s functional, it’s safe and if the horse stands to accept touch because they feel there are no other options, that is ok with them.
But for me, in all relationships, consent matters.
I talk about all the science: habituation, classical conditioning, operant learning, not because I’m obsessed with deconstruction, but because it is knowing your process that allows miracles. Learn the rules so you can forget them. Then, re-explain them so others can learn them and forget them too. Everything on this gorgeous earth follows a law: ethology, learning, the turn of the earth itself. It’s not romantic, but it is the elegant skeleton that underlies it all, including the transformation of a horse from wild to tame.
To me, tameness isn’t a set of skills. It is it’s true dictionary definition, tame: an animal not dangerous or frightened of humans.
I am not looking for a replica of tameness.
I am looking for the true beast, quiet, centered and unafraid.
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Pendle soon after being rounded up in February 2017
Many years ago, when I brought Dragon to a new boarding barn, he was put in a field with a resident horse on the very same day without a proper introduction. While I was away for an hour picking up lunch, he was chased and chased until he slipped and fell violently on some railroad ties set into the ground and shaved off the bony point of his hip and possibly cracked his pelvis. A full year later, after much chiropractic work, worry and confusion over his physical issues, a very honest fellow boarder told me the story and everything made sense. He was only four at the time.
So, you can imagine, when I went to visit Pendle the Saturday before I was to pick her up from the Mequon facility, I was shaken to learn she had taken a fall when the wranglers were separating out one of the mustangs to get on his trailer to go to his new home. All of the horses adopted in the internet auction are shipped and housed together at the satellite facility. Each time a horse from the internet adoption group is picked up, the horses need to be separated using chutes, luck and long whips with flags. There’s no easy way to do it, to organize and move wild horses, and it requires an impeccable sense of timing and space. Pendle was in with a group of heavier boned, more relaxed geldings, so the flags and sorting upset her more than the others. During one of the sortings, she panicked and crashed into a fence, going up and almost over the fence, before falling over onto her side. Very luckily, she was unhurt.
On Sunday, when we went to pick her up, I was nervous about loading her, because I know that repetition tends to amplify fear. The head wrangler and I had a good talk ahead of time and agreed we would not only not put a halter on Pendle while she was in the chute, but would not cut off her ID number to avoid stressing her or causing any panic while she was confined. I would do those things at home once she was relaxed and we had a relationship. She was considered “reactive” based on her responses there at the pens and people warned me she would likely take longer to tame.
Here’s the video of Pendle being sorted and loaded onto our trailer to take home:
I basically held my breath the entire time, because I already loved her. I just wanted her safely home and in her short-term pen where I could begin to teach her humans were the source of good things. Below is a video of Pendle just off the trailer.
Old mustang tamers know that less is more. Sitting in the pen with your new mustang and doing something that offers no intention toward the horse is the safest, most animal-centric and easiest way to get started. Reading a book, playing cards or drawing are all good choices. They center your energy inwards, which is less threatening to the horse. Because you are busy with other activities, the mustang will feel free to observe, investigate and gather information about you. The automatic, underlying process beneath this is called habituation. Oversimplified, what doesn’t cause us harm, we quickly get used to. Definitively, habituation is the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus. It prevents all living things from wasting their time and resources reacting to every single thing they see. Below is a short video of Pendle investigating me just a few days after we brought her home.
People can act with mustangs the same way they act with fearful dogs. We seem to collectively believe that if we just get our hands on an animal they will learn how gentle and kind we are, and their wildness and fear will melt away immediately in a one trial experience. But in reality, that isn’t how fear or wildness dissipates. Fear and wildness are big, heavy things that take time move.
Habituation helps, and food helps even more. The very first thing all baby animals learn is to stay close to mom who offers nourishment and safety. This isn’t something we have to think about. Eating feels good, and by extension, those who offer nourishment feel good to us too. I am in no way saying that feeding your horse or cat or dog makes them think you are their mother, or of the same species. But that in the choice between stealing energy – making a horse run – or offering energy in the form of food, occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. One feels bad/dangerous and one feels good/familiar. If you want to classically condition relaxation and safety, food is the route.
People talk all the time about horses moving other horses to justify using space taking gestures as inter-species teaching models. But, horses driving other horses out of their space isn’t pro-social or part of a deeper educational lesson. The goal of those behaviors is just to regain space and maintain it. Yes, horses understand those gestures. But those gestures are about driving others away, not deepening relationships and teaching new things.
I want my learners to be fascinated, to be relaxed, to feel empowered and to lean in. The older spells, the organic mechanism triggered at birth, is to seek a food source. To move toward what will sustain life. This is the framework I want to use. Misconceptions about food in horse training abound, and it’s true that mustangs have to learn to accept anything but hay as a reinforcer. But everything is novel for them – humanity, halters, ropes, fences and yes, grain. A naive learner is not an excuse to avoid food as a tool. It just means there is a learning process involved.
With Pendle, I offered a small bit of grain daily in the same tub, at the same time, when I fed all my other horses. Very quickly, she came to look forward to the food and enjoy it.
At that point, my use of the passive process of habituation and the passive process of classical conditioning, me delivering the food to her pen, began to wrap together into a more powerful whole. I was no longer very scary to her at all and I predicted good things that she enjoyed. The basic laws of learning had been used well enough to offer a bridge to new possibilities, hand-feeding.
Stay tuned for part two which will chronicle hand-feeding, first lessons and the gains in tameness offered by classical conditioning.
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Earlier this winter, I did a lot of hiking out in the 100 or so acres behind our farm. There was plenty of soft snow and it wasn’t demanding on cold muscles like accurate arena work. It was a good way to get the blood flowing and as a bonus, I could wear gloves when I fed my horses and while I hiked. I didn’t need extra dexterity on the reins like I do in-hand or under saddle. As we hiked, technically on a “trail ride” as the horses and I were off property, moving in a relative line, I started to think about what a trail ride really is, to the horse, how many owners struggle with taking their horse out alone and what we can take from our daily work to make riding-out possible, safe and fun.
I was very interested in observing the general change in my horses’ arousal levels as we left our property. All of my horses eagerly volunteer to come out and learn, and all of them are used to working alone, without any other horses. But leaving the home property adds a level of unfamiliarity and a much larger physical distance from the actual herd. Because I am not interested in suppression or force as a tool for controlling behavior, my horses were totally at liberty so I would have an honest read on whether or not they wanted to come along. (Our farm is very secluded, so even if my horses were to go back home on their own, there is really no traffic or road to cross. Other people might not have this set up and will need to make adjustments to ensure safety for their horses.)
Initially, I took my horses two at a time out hiking. I knew having two together would easily increase relaxation, and I wanted to take advantage of creating positive initial experiences. I had my wife or other training friends come along and each of us was responsible for one horse.
Dragon, Aesop and Sara out on an early winter hike.
With two horses, the hikes were easy and they both stayed quite relaxed, their thresholds nearly identical to when we trained on property. Awesome! But, as we neared home, maybe the last 50 yards or so, they would speed up and canter back into view of the other horses and our barn. It improved with every hike, until it was only the last ten feet as the trail switched from the field to our property, but it was still anxiety. Small things can always turn into big things, so better to address them early. The horses were letting me know where the holes were in their emotional confidence.
The next time I brought Dragon and Aesop into the field, I had a new plan based on what I had observed. Before I took them out, I set up the field with objects I use in training sessions in the indoor arena. I dragged out mounting blocks, some large buckets I use to mark off circles when we longe at liberty, as well as a large plastic spool I got at a dog training store.
My well-loved mounting block.
I set these things up at the entrance to the field, so they were some of the very first and very last things we encountered as we hiked. As we entered the field the first time with the object set up, the change in the horses was measurable. They had felt relaxed before, but now they eagerly walked up to the familiar objects, lining up with the mounting blocks, sometimes moving out ahead to reach an object first and then wait for me to catch up and reinforce. They were focused and thoughtful.
Aesop lining up at the bucket for Sam.
It became very clear to me very quickly, that adding in objects that already had conditioned associations with them and deep reinforcement histories allowed the horses to access their best, most responsive selves immediately. Adding the objects onto our trail walks was like when we got to use our notes for tests in school: everything felt easy and suddenly test taking wasn’t nerve wracking in the least!
Dragon at the mounting block, offering stillness and his back. Lovely!
The objects you use in your everyday training sessions: mounting blocks, traffic cones to mark off circles, and buckets to practice turning around are more than just mundane objects. They become a deep and integral piece of the learning process. What functions do they serve?
They cue you to stop and ask for a certain behavior from your horse. These objects help order and pattern your training sessions. Trail walks and rides can be long and continuous. Once people start, they rarely stop, which can lead to both the horse or human becoming overfaced as they steadily move into uncharted territory. Using objects along your path can break up the pressure to go, go, go and provide better context for you and your horse.
They become secondary reinforcers to your horse. Even though these objects are neutral initially, over time, their presence becomes reinforcing to your horse because they so often lead to actual reinforcement. This classical conditioning will help your horse to feel relaxed and eager because working around these objects always predicts good things!
These objects also cue your horses for certain operant behaviors. If you have done a solid job using objects as targets and context cues in your foundation work with your horse (stand on a mat, line up at a mounting block, trot to the outside of cones, touch your nose to a jolly ball), you have a whole lexicon of visual cues you can take with you on the trail or in new environments. Rather than abandoning all of the familiar and well learned objects, bring them into your trail ride or new environments to help your horse be right!
A short trail ride alone, once we were comfortable thanks to our object work. Heading back toward a mounting block, not pictured.
Riding object to object with Aesop out in the fields.
When we work in arenas, we never ask our horses to go any further from home than they are when they enter the arena. It’s a static space, controlled and safe. But when we head out onto the trail, not only is it an unpredictable environment in terms of wildlife, geographical variation and unfamiliarity; it also takes our horses continually further from home and their herd mates. That’s pretty challenging. Getting our horses used to learning and working in novel environments should be approached thoughtfully and with attention to detail. Intentionally harnessing the power of familiar objects with deep reinforcement histories allows our horses immediate relaxation and context in what can be a fear-inducing situation. It’s just good training.
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When you see magic portrayed in books and movies, it is often used as a short-cut around reality. You can clean up a room with a wave of a wand or turn a man into a goat to pull your cart. This sort of magic is superficial: a trick, a deceit. Over time or under certain conditions, it usually degrades to reveal the true nature of reality underneath. It turns out it was only a thin veneer. An illusion. There’s lots of training like this, too. My friend Shirley is neighbors with a man who competed in the last “mustang makeover”. He used lots of short-cuts to get his horse ready to compete in ninety days and even placed well in the competition. Superficially, the horse looked “trained”. The only trouble now is that the man can’t even catch the horse from the pasture. The reality underneath was the horse was never comfortable, just trapped between hard choices. In my world, I think of these techniques as dark magic, illusions. Spells that seek to control without any regard for the horse.
Real magic, or transformation, requires quiet, incremental work in deep agreement with reality. It allows no short-cuts and if you work skillfully, the changes made are quite real. With Tarot, I wanted to help him transform his emotional landscape from fearful and trapped to trusting, engaged and joyful. I wanted to offer him healing and the vast space that healing can bring. Lastly, I wanted to stretch my own soul. I knew that real magic always works both ways; I couldn’t transform Tarot without transforming myself. I needed a clean, white magic, clear and fluid as water. Clicker training.
If you had a magic wand what spell would you cast?
I wasn’t naive enough to think I could go directly at a spell for riding with Tarot. I knew that underneath everything good, everything healthy between humans and horses lived relaxation and engagement. Without that as a foundation, everything else would be compromised. This summer, Tarot started to be outgoing, silly. He started to canter up from the bottom of his pasture, shaking his head and demanding attention. He put on new pieces of equipment like he had always worn them, without worry. The smell of leather used to send him snorting into the distance, now he arched his neck and stood quietly to put on a saddle. He began to feel, well, like all my other horses. Relaxed. Happy. Engaged. A few weeks ago, I woke up and thought, “Today I will sit on Tarot.” I’m used to following my intuition, so after I finished my horse chores, I took the mounting block out to Tarot to see what he thought of it. I used something I call an “asking loop” to assess his comfort and make sure I didn’t skip any important steps in the process. An asking loop splits a larger process into all it’s component pieces and checks in with the learner at each step to assess their comfort. Here’s a video of our “asking loop” on day two:
At twenty-one seconds, you can hear Tarot blow through his nostrils as he lowers his head while my leg is over his back. This is a low level sign of fear and something he used to do all the time when I was even near him. He’s saying this is hard for him! This is a stop sign for me and means I shouldn’t progress further until Tarot shows he is relaxed. The other detail to notice to compare with my day four video (below) is that Tarot’s head stays relatively high during this session and he really has to work hard to offer a bit of head lowering until the end.This is tension and also registers as tension in his back. These are small details, but they are crucial. People and horses lose confidence in one another when these small behaviors are ignored and the horse is forced to show discomfort through larger behaviors like spinning away, bolting or bucking. I want him to know I can hear him when he is mildly uncomfortable and he never needs to escalate to get my attention.
The most charming detail, however, is that Tarot doesn’t leave the mounting block even when I do. He’s obviously decided by the end of this session that the mounting block predicts a fun game. Why leave when that lady keeps coming back to feed him just for standing still?
Here’s a video of our “asking loop” on day four, the day Tarot invited me onto his back:
In this video you can see that Tarot starts out very relaxed, with a low head and no blowing. His eyes are soft and blinking throughout and his ears are floppy, listening for my click. He looks so relaxed it’s hard to imagine him fearful or afraid. You can also see that he keeps on chewing the grain from his last reward while I sit on him the next time. If he was tense there would be a momentary freeze response which would stop his chewing. He is calm and present. What is fascinating to me is that there was no point in the process where I consciously decided to get on. I just proceeded through my asking loop and as I felt his body relax and felt his solid connection to the ground through his back, my body made the decision for me. And then, there we were, me sitting on my horse, he with a person on his back, completely relaxed and on the edge of a brand new world, together.
Last week I demonstrated how to set up a training session so a horse can learn to stand still around something that scares them even when allowed to spin, trot or canter away as an initial response. I focused on the expression of the flight response not presenting a roadblock to calm, relaxed behavior if it happened in the context of a positive reinforcement paradigm. To be clear, though, the training session I set up for Tarot had many more components than simply allowing a flight response. Just allowing him to run away wouldn’t have helped him access behavior change. The other crucial elements in setting up this session for Tarot were choice, stimulus predictability, reinforcing active coping skills and presenting only one component of the stimulus per training session.
The word “choice” is thrown around a lot in training circles these days. As we humans become more sensitive to treating our animal companions more humanely, we are learning to consider what choices we can safely offer our horses and what truly empowering training scenarios might look like. With Tarot, in particular, who has had a life where he started out completely free until adulthood, making choices that felt right according to his instincts and sense of self-preservation, even seemingly benign training set ups can quickly make him claustrophobic. Choice, for him, is monumental
What choices was I able to offer him within the structure of our session? I left him loose so that he didn’t have the halter and lead putting physical or emotional pressure on him to stay, as had been done in his past. He could run as far and as fast as he wanted from the spray and he didn’t have to come back if he didn’t want to. To be fair to him, I wanted him to volunteer to work with the spray. He would vote with his proximity. Just like a human at a therapy session who can say “I don’t want to talk about that right now, I’m not ready,” I wanted him to be able to choose not to “talk” about his fear of fly spray. If he had left and not re-engaged after the initial spray, I would’ve put the fly spray away and worked on familiar exercises he knows and enjoys.
If I were able to go back and change one variable in the training session, I would have conditioned the word “Spray!” to the lift of the bottle and then the active spraying three to five times outside his paddock, so he understood the predictive relationship between the two. He understood it within the span of the session but it was a small hole that could have and probably did undermine his relaxation.
Reinforce active coping:
Research from 2001 has shown that when animals utilize active coping strategies in response to previously negative (ie: scary!) conditioned stimulus, their amygdalas actually re-route their wiring from moving to the more primitive and fear-maintaining brain stem to the active, conscious, motor circuits. This re-route doesn’t occur if the animal remains passive or “frozen”. According to theresearch, “It is ‘learning by doing,’ a process in which the success in terminating the conditioned stimulus reinforces the action taken.”
In Tarot’s case, when he chose to walk toward the fly spray, an active strategy, I clicked the behavior, a yes answer, and stopped spraying and lowered the bottle (terminated the stimulus). For him, the sound, smell and feel of fly spray elicits a deep, conditioned fear response. Just teaching him to stand still or be passive and allow the spray to happen doesn’t give his brain a new response to code and use in the future. He has to be active in the process. He has to do something.
Present only one component of the stimulus per training session:
Fly spray isn’t one dimensional. I can’t ask Tarot if the sound, smell or feel of it is the most alarming to him. So, to avoid making it too difficult for him to change his behavior, I have to make sure to “split” the presentation of it. In our first session, I only present the sound and visual of the spray. I have the bottle filled with water so there’s no unfamiliar scent and I only spray NEAR him to avoid the physical sensation of the fly spray hitting him. Once he is completely relaxed with spray near him, then I will move to actual spray with scent near him, then then spray with water directly sprayed onto his body and finally real fly spray sprayed directly onto his body.
Those are the components that make up Tarot’s session from last week. It all makes lovely sense in print. But, as Alexandra Kurland says, “We don’t know what the horse has learned, we only know what we’ve presented.” In order to find out how Tarot processed his lesson, I went out and repeated the same training session to see where he was emotionally and what behaviors he was able to offer. Here’s what happened:
Not only was Tarot more relaxed this time, he never chose to leave. Because there was no flight response, I couldn’t reinforce walking back toward the spray as his active coping strategy. Instead he offered incremental movements of his head-down behavior as a new strategy. You can see him begin to offer the head lowering almost immediately upon initiation of the spray. This behavior is totally uncued and is completely self-directed by Tarot. He is driving the session. Another horse might choose a totally different behavior and that would be acceptable too.
For Tarot, head-lowering says a lot about his emotional state.
Horse’s heads tend to shoot up when they are nervous, their backs invert and their muscles tense and are ready for action; this makes Tarot’s choice of active coping particularly lovely, as a signal of relaxation. By lowering his head, he is reducing his binocular vision, less ready to flee and adopting the beginning of a “grazing posture” which only happens when there is no threat. He gives several long blinks during the session, very different from the wide unblinking eyes of fear. In addition, on the last repetition with the spray, he even gives a long sigh, indicating a release of tension.
When I assess what Tarot learned in his session, the measurable changes are: he is able to be voluntarily in proximity to fly spray, he is able to stand near fly spray and he is able to offer head-lowering while fly spray is actively spraying. These are huge changes that took place over only two training sessions. Learning to offer our horses scenarios to practice active coping and learning to offer them real choice gives fearful and anxious horses a chance to have a better quality of life. Using these tools can help them access both safer and more functional responses so that living in our human world feels more predictable and easier. We all deserve a chance to re-route our fear rather than be trapped by it.
Yesterday when I went out to train Aesop I had a clear idea in my head about what I wanted the training session to look like. I was going to practice his increasingly solid “riding from the ground” skills outside, in his saddle, and then play with a bit of balance work in trot as a reward for good RFTG. He really loves to trot now that he knows he gets “paid” for it in treats and wants to offer it any time the chance arises.
When we got outside and into the training session, it was clear Aesop needed a different lesson than the one I had planned. I had planned on doing a training session where we would review what he had already learned and get in some nice repetitions of fairly stable behaviors. But his behaviors weren’t where I had left them. He had processed the go forward with someone at your side really well from our last lesson and was ready to offer it just when asked to bend or when I got near the side of the saddle. He was ready to show me what a good walk-off looks like and I had been so busy envisioning our fun trot work I was caught totally off-guard. Here’s a video of me caught by surprise and re-setting his walk off’s, which I had worked so hard for the last three training sessions:
To be clear, Aesop isn’t too conflicted about being re-set. He handles the information in stride and doesn’t get emotional or frustrated. It is an ok training choice that centers around getting stimulus control.But many other young horses would be frustrated or discouraged to be interrupted at this stage in their learning. To my small credit, I am clicking and treating these re-sets because I am at least aware they are new to him. But in my work, I am looking to let the horse be right. It’s not a natural way to look at things, and it takes practice. So how can I let him be right? I can let him walk off and click for either soft bend within the walk off or staying with me, both of which are criteria I will have in this exercise. That allows Aesop to have the right answer while I am still building skills we need for our future riding. Here’s a video of me with my changed criteria:
In this video you can see that Aesop leans down on his forehand and walks off when I ask him to bend. He’s not waiting for my breath cue against his side and he’s walking through my bend request. But instead of re-setting and blocking him, I just go with him, but I wait for him to raise his head a bit and bend more correctly before I release the rein and click/reward. He gets to be right and I get behavior that I want, too. I can go back in in a few sessions, once he’s really confident about walking off and work on stimulus control. It’s not important right now.
Part of what I love so much about training is the number of choices it presents at every moment. It’s both what is hard about training and what makes the training session such an infinite place to inhabit. It’s what confounds newer trainers and obsesses those who make it a life’s work. There are training mantras, though, that can help a trainer navigate their choices better. In this case, the mantra was: Let you horse be right.
In Greek mythology the magical winged horse, Pegasus, can only be tamed with a golden bridle. Bellerophon needs Pegasus to slay the Chimera and he spends months trying to catch him but he is unsuccessful. Finally he prays to the gods for help and he is instructed to sleep in the Temple of Athena. While he sleeps he dreams Athena visits him and tells him how to find Pegasus at the well where he drinks and gives him golden bridle that will allow him to ride Pegasus. When Bellerophon wakes up there is a golden bridle by his side and he knows the dream was real. He finds the well Athena described and captures Pegasus when he kneels down to drink by pushing the bridle over his head. Once the bridle is on Pegasus is beholden to Bellerophon’s will.
I like this myth because I think it plainly describes how much stock humans put in equipment. If we just have the right bridle, the right bit, the right caveson then our horse will be beholden to our will and our training issues will be solved. But the truth is equipment is only as good as the training that accompanies it. A bridle is a powerful tool, but horses learn how to respond to a bridle. You have to teach them. Golden bridles aren’t gifted by the gods, they are built by good training.
Since I will be riding Aesop in the spring again, I want to teach him how to work in a french riding caveson. This is work that can and should be taught from the ground. Here’s a video of Aesop’s first lesson learning how to be “ridden from the ground.”:
In the video you see Sara working with three different cues. Can you stand still while I lift my rein and wait for more information? Click/Reward. When I slide down the rein can you soften to me? Click/Reward. When I breathe in so my rib cage touches your side like my leg will once I am mounted can you walk off? Click/Reward.
It’s important to teach your horse rein cues before you get on so that you have a reliable language at your disposal. Horses have a blind spot directly behind them so they can’t see us once we are on their backs. We literally disappear from view. For many horses, that means they lose all of the visual training language they have built with their human once riding begins. Stressful, to say the least! I don’t want Aesop to be struggling to understand me once I am on his back. I want him to be confident about what is being asked of him and enjoying our training time. So I’m taking the time to teach him rein and tactile cues from the ground. Here’s our second session in the arena:
We are doing the same exercise you see in the first video. Can you stand still while I lift the reins? Click/Reward. Can you soften to me when I slide down the rein? Click/Reward. Can you walk off when you feel pressure on your side? Click/Reward. He’s overbending a bit when I slide down the rein but that is something that I can progressively shape to be smaller and smaller. He’s trying and that’s good. He is a bit confused about pressure on his side being a cue to walk off, especially because I have always walked off up by his head. I’m asking him to move off first AND from a new cue. That’s hard. But the video shows his best and lightest attempt. For his second session he’s doing a wonderful job.
Even if there was a magic golden bridle I could get by worshipping the right gods, I wouldn’t be interested. When Bellerophon removes the golden bridle, Pegasus flies away and Bellerophon spends the rest of his days searching for the horse. To me it’s a cautionary tale: Don’t let your equipment take the place of good communication with your horse. Take the time to teach your horse what he needs to know so you are bound by relationship and a common language.
It’s been a cold and snowy winter so I’ve been locked in the house doing far less horse training than I wish. Today alone the temperature might not climb above 0. I have to content myself with short sessions when it’s warm enough to train without freezing but I’m dreaming of green, long grass and daylight that stretches well into the evening hours. When it’s been warm enough I’ve continued to work on hoof handling with Djinn so we can get that skill set mastered this winter. Then, in spring we can move on to more exciting things like introducing her to the arena, walks on property and starting balance work.
Djinn isn’t a horse who has ever worried about her body being touched, which is a nice change of pace for me from my other mustangs. She has yet to be reactive to any touch, grooming or space. She likes touch and she feels generally safe around people. She came to me this way, likely because she was captured as a yearling, and spent so much time in close proximity to humans who fed her vast quantities of alfalfa and carrots. In fact, she was so trusting that she might push you right over on her way to do something else. So, we’ve done a lot of work around moving forward and back on the lead, keeping her head to herself and how to stand quietly. She has done beautifully with that work and it was time to move on to hoof care.
Most humans don’t properly understand how vulnerable a horse is when they offer their foot to you. As a prey animal flight is their safety. A held foot is a trap on a very basic level. As humans who think conceptually and big picture we instinctively scoff at this idea. We know that we are only picking up our horses feet to clean them out or teach them how to be relaxed for a trim. But how many of you have seen a horse with a leg trapped in a fence thrash and fight like their life depended on it? Relaxed foot handling is learned. It’s not natural but it can be taught fairly easily. The video below shows Djinn’s third session with her feet being held:
I had already taught Djinn to pick up her foot off a soft touch of the whip on her leg and to hold it up in the air with duration on her own. She could do this on a verbal cue “foot” so I felt confident changing to my hand cupping her foot instead of my whip against her fetlock. She didn’t seem too nervous about me holding her foot, but she did take her face off to the outside, which is a low level sign of discomfort. I hold the foot quietly, make sure I’m not adding tension to the situation by making sure I have a loose lead rope and I click her AND release her foot when she brings her face back to the center of her chest. There are two rewards here: the food – which is a bonus reward – and giving her back her foot- which is a functional reward. A good trainer is always aware of both. After several good repetitions I let her walk off and move her feet. Standing still is hard, especially for a young horse so I don’t want to take advantage of her good behavior by asking for too many repetitions.
I stop her in the same place to work on her right side. She is less confident on her right and needs a gentle tactile cue of my sliding my hand down her leg to give her the idea of lifting her hoof. Since just getting her to lift the hoof was more difficult, I’m not going to be greedy and hold onto it too. Once her lift on the right is as immediate and easy as her lift on the left, I’ll raise my criteria and hold onto the hoof.
Djinn is a far cry from the emotional, barging, biting mare she was when she first arrived here from the BLM last summer. She came here unafraid of people but also unable to receive information from people. She didn’t know how to be directed. She was always frustrated and impatient and pushing for what she wanted. She has relaxed and become quite calm now that she understands how to look to her human training partner for cues. She’s starting to seem much more like the grown-up 4 year old she soon will be than the immature 3 year old she was when she arrived here.
When I decided to purchase my mustang stallion, Tarot, I knew I had a long road in front of me. He had been in one home for each year he was captive. That made for six different homes before he finally made it to our farm. I knew he was what most people call a project and I wanted what he had to teach me. He was eleven years old and had yet to meet a human who could teach him what they wanted him to learn.
Things like walking up to be haltered, being fly sprayed in the summer, accepting a saddle without exploding and being led without bolting. But Tarot’s biggest issue from his past is allowing foot handling. He has a long history of kicking people that picked up his back feet but also of pulling away and being very uncomfortable with any of his feet being picked up, cleaned or trimmed. Most people just gave up and let them grow because he was dangerous or unpredictable when his feet were handled. It was uncomfortable for everyone. One of his past homes had a trainer out to help him learn to be handled but he took the “cooperate or run” approach. If Tarot kicked he made him run. Eventually Tarot would give in out of sheer exhaustion and they would get a few feet done, not always all four on the same day. It worked as a method outwardly, he did surrender his foot, but Tarot never learned to be more open to having his feet handled. Instead he learned when a human reaches for your hoof they are likely to turn unpredictable, demanding and obsessive. Hoof care for Tarot is deeply poisoned. It’s also our winter project.
It is infinitely easier to teach a behavior correctly from the beginning than to teach a new response in place of an undesirable one. Once a neural pathway has been mapped it can’t be erased. You can only build a new one and help the learner choose it over and over and over until that pathway becomes the habit. It sounds kind of simple but in practice it’s not so easy. That’s why I love my untouched mustangs so much, they are blank slates waiting for good information. Tarot has already been “programmed”, so to speak, and it is up to me to avoid the expression of those old responses while teaching something new. Learning can be bound up in a tactile sensation, which is unfortunate, because picking up feet can’t happen without some touch at least once you get down to cleaning out feet or actually trimming them. So how to approach the subject with him?
One of my favorite writers, Jeanette Winterson, writes, “Jung argued that a conflict can never be resolved on the level at which it arises – at that level there is only a winner and loser, not a reconciliation. The conflict must be got above – like seeing a storm from higher ground.”
I started out by teaching Tarot to target his knee to the end of a whip. Whips are something he isn’t afraid of – I guess there aren’t a lot of cowboys with whips – and more importantly, whips aren’t hands. I wanted to teach him to pick up his own foot and hold it up with a verbal cue. I wanted to split out the layers for him and just start with the subject, “Can you pick up your foot with a human near you?” instead of, “can you pick up your foot and surrender control of it to me?” Staying outside the depth of the conflict and above the storm. Here’s a video of where we are starting from today:
I have already faded the whip to just a finger point, mostly because I am incredibly clumsy walking with it by my side in the slippery snow. So my cue for the foot lift is to say the word “foot”, switch my lead to my left hand and point to his knee. When he raises his foot I drop my hand and I click when he seems relaxed. I’m not working on teaching him to pick up his feet, he knows how to do that now. I’m working on building relaxation like bedrock into the skill. The foot lift is the motion but the relaxation within it is the goal.
How do you speak to a horse about relaxation? You need both a clear training language and good listening skills. Tarot has to have the freedom to refuse my requests and the safety to express his conflict or anger without punishment. I have to know how to stay safe and non-reactive myself when he is upset. I need to be able to read small expressions of conflict/tension so I can see how well he is handling the work and make adjustments accordingly. I also need not just a “yes” answer (the click), but a “that was spectacular” answer so he can more easily understand the work. Right now, any foot offer without any tail swish or head raise is clickable. But sometimes he kicks his foot backs when he goes to set it down because he is tense and frustrated. I have already clicked so I am going to feed him because I don’t want to seem unreliable. But, when he softly offers his foot and lowers his head and sets it down softly he gets a click and treat and a chance to do a few nose targets. The nose targets are an easy behavior where he is sure to earn reinforcers and they offer the functional reward of a break from focusing on his feet.
Here’s a video of his right side where he is significantly less comfortable:
Here you see he is unable to lift his foot without extreme tail swishing/tail wringing. This tail movement shows how conflicted he is about me being on his right side and asking for his feet. He also leans his head and neck off to the left which is another conflict behavior he offers when he is uncomfortable and thinking about leaving. In it’s extreme form Tarot would spin away and present his hindquarters to me in a kick threat. He also is hurriedly offering me feet over and over even though I haven’t even said the cue or changed my lead rope to my inside hand. I’ve found with my mustangs when they are still nervous about their feet they offer them quickly and often instead of waiting to be cued. I’m not going to fuss about stimulus control when I am working on relaxation. So what to do? My rule of thumb is if he can’t offer a quiet response I will feed him for any foot lifting response despite the conflict he is showing. If he can eat he will begin to relax. So even though he is full of angst I feed him for each and every time his foot is in the air regardless of his emotional state. I do make a few mistakes because I was surprised at the level of conflict he displayed and had to change my plan on the spot. I should have just reached in my pouch and began feeding him immediately, sans click, the moment his foot left the ground. This is called counter-conditioning. Once he is able to offer a more relaxed response, then I will click that response and ask him to target as a reward. That response will become my new criteria. He raises the bar on his own at his own pace. By the seventh(!) repetition he offers a relaxed foot lift with no tail swish. I click, reward him with an opportunity to target my hand, and go back to his left side to give him the ultimate functional reward of leaving his right side.
You can’t force relaxation, you have to draw it out like a shy animal. You create the conditions for it to exist.